North could be at the forefront of life sciences if the South did not receive more than double the investment

The North could become a shining light in health research, developing cutting edge treatments and making scientific strides, if spending on the sector was brought into line with levels in the South, a new report has claimed.

Think tank IPPR has called for the life sciences to be prioritised in the Government’s “levelling up” agenda, as their study revealed the North received £4bn less a year in health research and development than the South.

The report said the North received just £72 per head, compared to £168 per head in the South, and the figures drew warnings that without closing the gap Government promises to improve life chances outside of the capital and South East would fail.

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Government investment came to £22 per head in the North compared to £56 in the South, the report found, while investment from the private sector was £50 per person in the North compared to £122 in the South.

Health care researchers working in life science laboratory.

But with equal investment Chris Thomas, IPPR health fellow and lead author of the report, said the North could not only contribute more to the sector, but also improve the lot of those living in the region, both in terms of their health and economic prospects.

“The difference would be, frankly, massive,” Mr Thomas said.

He said already there was excellence in Yorkshire, with Leeds leading the way in medical technology in diagnostics and imaging, and York for health economics.

He said: “A lot of those places are very good off their own back, they’ve done it without much support from the centre.”

But he said the health inequalities seen between the North and South could be better bridged if investment was more balanced.

Research last year showed that in 66 per cent of areas in the North, female life expectancy was lower than the area with the lowest female life expectancy in the South. The figure was 46 per cent of areas for male life expectancy.

But Mr Thomas said: “One thing we can see is where higher levels of ill-health are located, it’s not where the science is done, which seems quite strange.

“And we know the Government is thinking of science not just in health outcomes but also economic outcomes.”

The Government released a research and development roadmap last week, where it acknowledged that “despite strong national performance in science, research and innovation, UK R&D intensity and funding is concentrated in some regions”.

It said “Regions outside of the ‘Golden Triangle’ of London, the South East and the East of England lag behind our competitors in Northern Europe and some of our cities underperform.”

And Northern Health Science Alliance chief executive Dr Séamus O’Neill said: “Research and innovation are key to economic growth and there has been a systematic and sustained underfunding of the North over decades.

“If levelling-up or a commitment to post-Covid economic recovery are to go beyond rhetoric, substantial and targeted government investment in northern assets is essential.”

The Gvernment's policy paper also said: “At a local level research and development investment can transform areas by acting as a driving force for social innovation, local growth and improved productivity.”

It added: “Ensuring we are making the most of all our strengths across the UK will allow us to capitalise on longer-term economic opportunities and tackle longstanding regional inequalities.”

The need for strong research and development has been starkly shown in the response to the coronavirus.

Mr Thomas said: “The response of the research and development community to Covid-19 has been excellent, what would have happened if we were not beginning from a standing start? And what would the role of the North have been?

“Covid-19 is proof of how important this is. Entering the next decade without a coherent and progressive health R&D strategy would be like building a house on a volcano and not taking out insurance.”

Dr O’Neill added: “We have the assets here to grow, now we need to call out the inequity in investment we’ve suffered to make sure that they have the opportunity to do so for the good of the entire UK.”

The Government was contacted for comment.